Point of View

No more NSA budget secrets, so NC State's role is clear

January 14, 2014 


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Randy Avent, N.C. State University’s associate vice chancellor for research, reacted quickly to Edward Snowden’s first leaks about the reach of U.S. spying. After all, the National Security Agency had just committed to a record-breaking $61 million investment on campus.

“Our lab is just that – a research program studying the fundamental science behind analytics,” he wrote in an internal email in June. “It is not a storage facility for classified data and does not work with any data like that mentioned” in Snowden’s revelation.

That technicality glosses over a larger truth. N.C. State’s work is key to an NSA business model that has generated 50 percent to 60 percent growth since 2006, and it’s that business model that may well be driving NSA’s overreach. With the Obama administration’s 2015 budget request pending, it’s time to pull the shroud of secrecy from NSA’s finances and ask some tough questions that NSA and N.C. State have avoided.

NSA has a strange problem today: A lot of data get ignored because analysts can’t keep up with the torrent of information. Or, according to a leaked NSA briefing describing just one of its programs, the volume of data is “outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store.” That’s waste and, according to the bureaucratic rules of math, the way to resolve it is by financing new programs to use that data.

Here’s where N.C. State is useful. Its laboratory solves the most cutting-edge math problems and uses that knowledge to create software that helps separate wheat from chaff in large data sets. That research has been a unique asset for the Triangle, including spinning off a champion firm like SAS. But, to the NSA, this research means that each analyst can manage more information, allowing the front office to use its new-found capacity to invest in additional security programs.

After seven years of robust growth, this bureaucracy has clearly lost the discipline to limit what it “ingests” and save the money. Feeding it requires more work, enabled by breakthroughs like those at N.C. State, for more money.

Avent appears to have overstated the distance between N.C. State’s efforts and the contentious surveillance programs that Snowden revealed. N.C. State may not use that exact data, but the technology it produces is essential for an NSA business model that keeps compelling the agency to grow.

NSA Director Keith Alexander might be right when he insists that, despite collecting our data, NSA has no interest in our emails or phone calls. Instead, the attraction could be our wallets.

Money, not critical thinking, can easily become the problem-solver when a bureaucracy grows at this rate. Truly tough questions about the information required for our security lead to a loop of more money, more programs and more surveillance even to the point of absurdity. Make no mistake: Snooping into our phone and email records is absurd.

North Carolinians share a general interest in protecting privacy, but part of our economy also is at stake. Taxpayer dollars finance a bulk surveillance industry in the Triangle, yet it comes at real risk to our private-sector technology marketplace

Of the eight technology firms that protested NSA’s effect on their competitiveness and reputation in a December letter to President Obama, at least two have significant operations in North Carolina. Microsoft reports that in 2011 it expended $171 million and backed almost 1,100 jobs in North Carolina. Meanwhile, Google has placed a $600 million data center in Lenoir, and Durham is home to one of just seven nodes in Google’s Tech Hub Network.

NSA’s overreach undercuts this economy, and the benefit it gets from doing so may be nothing greater than a firmer grip on taxpayer money. Meanwhile, its budget documents are classified.

The agency’s business model works because of this gap in accountability. But the country can’t afford to let it stay that way. Public oversight of NSA’s budget needs to match its access to our wallets.

Federal budget season is almost here, and giving NSA a secret pass shouldn’t cut it this time. The White House owes us at least a summary of the agency’s finances. Dodging the tough questions by keeping those figures totally secret serves some narrow interests but not those of the country.

Matthew Leatherman (@MattLeatherman) is a freelance contributor on state-level international affairs.

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